Future Reflections        Special Issue: Technology

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Breaking Down the Barriers: Bookshare Celebrates a Decade of Digital Access

by Betsy Burgess and Valerie Chernek

Bookshare logo From the Editor: Like most blind people born before the digital age, I grew up in a book famine. Only a handful of the books and periodicals published in print each year ever appeared in Braille or as audio recordings. Sometimes I waited years to get my hands on a book that I longed to read.

Using digital technology, Bookshare has ushered in an astonishing new age of abundance for blind and print-disabled readers. This article describes this extraordinary resource and looks back on how it all began.

By fourth grade, Krystian was reading Braille using his BrailleNote. He was thrilled that he could read the Harry Potter series and other books for pleasure and still keep up with his schoolwork. Krystian had all the books he needed through his membership in Bookshare. Bookshare (<www.bookshare.org>) is an online library of more than 140,000 accessible digital books, including textbooks, teacher-recommended reading, literature, popular novels, bestsellers, reference materials, postsecondary journals, newspapers, and periodicals. "I really like using my BrailleNote and Bookshare," Krystian says. "Now I can carry all my books on one device, rather than lugging around big Braille volumes. I'm discovering new adventures in reading." Through Internet connectivity, Krystian can download books directly to his BrailleNote, or he can download books to a computer and transfer them on a USB thumb drive.

When Alexis lost much of her sight in middle school, her grades plummeted, and so did her hopes of graduating. By ninth grade she was skipping classes, and she talked about dropping out. Luckily, the director of low incidence disabilities in her district intervened. She paired Alexis with the Victor Reader Stream, a handheld device that uses text-to-speech technology to read books in a synthesized voice. She also signed up Alexis for a free Bookshare membership. Alexis had not yet learned Braille, and text-to-speech provided her with the help she needed. "I waited for books a lot, but now I feel like I finally fit in better in my classes," she says. For the first time, Alexis made the honor roll, and within two years of joining Bookshare she was back on track.

Chrichelle, a high school student, likes to study on her iPad using the Bookshare app Read2Go. With this app, she can enlarge the font of the e-text to a size that is comfortable for her. "Digital books and technologies helped me knock down my reading barriers," she says.

Ashley Seymour just finished her studies at Michigan Flint University. She finds digital books from Bookshare with the search-for-book feature in her text-reading software, Kurzweil 1000. Ashley likes to download books to her computer and convert them to MP3 files for on-the-go reading. "College students with print disabilities can really benefit from a Bookshare membership," she says. "I received many of my required textbooks and journals at the start of school. It was fast! Bookshare helps to equalize the learning field for students who are blind or have low vision."

The Goal of Bookshare

Alexis uses a Victor Stream to listen to a Bookshare bookBookshare's goal is to break down barriers to access and to ensure that individuals with print disabilities have equal educational opportunities. Membership is free for US students of all ages who have qualifying print disabilities, thanks to an award from the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). If your child or student is blind, has low vision, a reading disability such as dyslexia, or a physical disability such as cerebral palsy or traumatic brain injury, he/she may qualify for Bookshare. Adults with qualifying print disabilities can also join for a small annual fee. Visit  <www.bookshare.org/membershipOptions>  to learn more. [Note: Bookshare’s URLs are case sensitive.]

Instead of waiting months for a book to be transcribed into Braille or recorded by a live reader, blind students instantly can download any book in the Bookshare collection. Through Bookshare, schools can more easily deliver timely access to the curriculum. With necessary materials available at last, students who had been placed in separate settings can function in mainstream classrooms. They learn self-reliance and long-term independence, rather than dependence.

About the Collection

More than 190,000 US students and other individuals with qualifying print disabilities get accessible books from Bookshare. They can download and read more than 140,000 titles; about 55,000 of these titles are available to readers in other countries. Approximately half of the titles in the collection were contributed by publishers as digital files. The rest of the collection has been built by volunteers and in-house staff who scan books; universities that share books scanned on their local campuses; and K-12 textbooks downloaded from the National Instructional Materials Access Center, or NIMAC. Approximately two thousand new titles pour into the collection every month. At times that number is even higher, when a publisher sends a large number of titles digitally. In its application for the OSEP award, Bookshare committed to add 80,000 new educational titles. It has already exceeded that goal.

If a book is not already in the collection, teachers and students can ask Bookshare to scan it. The best way is to send the book to Bookshare directly. Keep in mind that the spine will be cut off so that the pages can run through a document feeder. On request Bookshare will return the chopped book to the sender. Even if you are sending the book, please submit a request so the team will know the book is on its way. To submit a book request, provide the ISBN number, title, and author. The Collection Development Team gets very busy over the summer and fall. The sooner teachers and students submit their requests, the better! If it is not possible to send the book, Bookshare will purchase and scan it; however, the organization prefers to have the books sent in order to conserve resources and serve more students.

Krystian in class with his BrailleNoteUS members can order Bookshare books in embossed Braille through a partnership with TechAdapt Inc. Please email [email protected] with the book title, author, and ISBN number, if available. TechAdapt will contact you with embossing options and pricing. Only books that are rated "excellent" or "publisher quality" can be embossed. (Embossing is not available for newspapers and magazines.) You can have embossed books sent to you or mailed to someone as a gift.

Textbooks from the NIMAC contain images. Books from publishers also contain images if images are included with the digital file. Over time, Bookshare intends to tackle the challenge of retaining images in scanned books. Already an exciting new project is underway, using volunteers and crowdsourcing. This initiative is made possible by a new tool called Poet, developed by the Diagram Center, another OSEP-funded project. With the help of dedicated volunteers, Bookshare is adding image descriptions to many titles in the collection. To learn about the project or to volunteer to assist, please read the Bookshare blog.

Becoming a Bookshare Member

Two types of Bookshare membership are available: organizational and individual membership.

1) Organizational Membership
Any US school that serves children with qualifying print disabilities may obtain a free organizational membership in Bookshare. Having your child on a school membership is necessary so that teachers can download K-12 textbooks. Schools may sign up as many teachers or students as required to download books on behalf of students.

2) Individual Membership
You'll probably want to sign up your child for an individual membership even if he/she receives textbooks through the school's membership. With an individual membership your child will be able to download books for recreational reading, helping to establish a lifelong habit of reading for pleasure. With an individual membership, students download as many books as they want on any subject of interest. Membership for students in the US is free. The fee for adults and individuals in many other countries is $75 for the first year, including a $25 setup fee; and $50 for every year after that. Some countries have discounted or prorated rates paid by government or nonprofit agencies. To learn more about membership in a specific country, please visit Bookshare's international membership page and click on the country in question.

Both schools and parents, on behalf of their students and children, can start the membership process at <www.bookshare.org>. Proof of disability is required and can be provided by a qualified professional. Typically, schools have a trained professional on staff who can certify that a student qualifies; otherwise, a family doctor, ophthalmologist, optometrist, neurologist, psychiatrist, etc., can sign the proof of disability form. The membership qualifications page on the Bookshare website has more examples of certifying professionals. When signed, the individual faxes the form to Bookshare. The fax number is on the form.

Note that if a student is already signed up on  a school membership, an easy process is built into the site, enabling a teacher to get individual membership for students. Further details about membership can be found at these links:

Taking the First Steps--Parent Community Website

Does Your Child Qualify?

How to Find Books on Bookshare Tutorial--YouTube Video

What Are the Free Reading Tools?

What Other Access Technology (AT) Devices Read Bookshare Books?

Learn More about Read2Go, a Portable App Available for $19.99 at the iTunes Apple Store.

Bookshare Is Ten Years Old!

Bookshare celebrates its tenth anniversaryThe development of optical character recognition (OCR) software in the 1980s allowed blind people to scan print books and turn them into accessible digital files. Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Arkenstone Reading Systems, realized that the same books were being scanned again and again by individuals with disabilities, wasting enormous amounts of time and energy. He envisioned a library of digital books uploaded by the people who scanned them and available for download to others who wished to read them. Such a library would eliminate duplication and save vast amounts of effort.

After careful investigation, Jim Fruchterman learned that an exception in the US copyright law, the Chafee Amendment, (17 USC Section 121), made it legal to distribute books in specialized formats to people with disabilities. Specifically, the language says it is not an infringement of copyright for an authorized entity to reproduce or distribute copies of a previously published, nondramatic literary work if such copies are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind people or other persons with disabilities. Jim's research and inspiration led to the founding of Bookshare.

In March 2012 Bookshare announced its tenth year of serving children and adults with disabilities around the world. The collection, the technology, and the membership have grown incredibly since the early days. To honor its first decade, Bookshare encourages educators, parents, and students to join in a worldwide virtual celebration. Ideas about how to participate are posted on the Bookshare website, blog, and Facebook page. Visit often and help the mission continue to grow.

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